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Bernie Fedderly: A champion's crew chief

19 Jul 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Of all the people I’ve come to know in the more than 30 years on this job, few have been as gracious and friendly as Bernie Fedderly, the Hall of Fame crew chief best known for his work with the likes of Terry Capp, Gary Beck, and John Force.

As you may know, this year, Bernie followed his good friend and fellow former John Force Racing crew chief Austin Coil into retirement after 33 seasons on tour. He didn’t get a big send-off, and, in typical easygoing Fedderly fashion, gracefully melted away into a more relaxing role in life; we’ve missed his easygoing nature on the road this year. I called him last week for information about the famed Larry Minor machine that shattered records in 1983 under his capable tuning.

Unfortunately, he and wife Mary were in the midst of making the permanent move of their worldly possessions from their longtime home base in Hemet, Calif., to Brownsburg, Ind., where he had been based during the latter years of his JFR tenure. By the time he got back to me early this week, the original article had been published, but, hey, since I had him on the line, I’m not one to waste a good opportunity, so I thought I’d share his remarkable story here instead.

The Capp & Fedderly Pioneer Anglia gasser
Terry Capp, Bernie Fedderly, and crewmember Al Mah surprised the field with their win at the 1980 U.S. Nationals from the final 32-car field in NHRA history.

Although he and Capp first came to national attention with their surprising win over the NHRA's last 32-car Top Fuel field at the 1980 U.S. Nationals, the Edmonton, Alta., duo had been friends since they were classmates at St. Joseph's High School, where he took automotive classes and spent his weekends with other members of the Capitol City Hot Rod Association. He enrolled at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, ultimately earning a degree as an engine technician (his first job was as a fleet mechanic for a Canadian dairy firm "just keeping the milk trucks running").

He and Capp raced together with the Pioneer Anglia gasser and gas dragsters before teaming with Canadian businessman Wes Van Duesen in the late 1960s to go nitro racing, which included a simultaneous match-race-only Funny Car and a Top Fueler in the mid-1970s before settling on Top Fuel, but the learning curve was sometimes steep.

“We stumbled along for a couple of years trying to learn the trade and turned the corner when we switched to a late-model engine and got some better equipment,” he recalled. Among the improvements in 1980 was the second new-design Top Fuel chassis built by Al Swindahl, whose pipe soon would become as big a part of winning in Top Fuel as nitromethane. At that time, they were sponsored by the Wheeler Dealer speed shop, in which Capp was a part owner, and that helped their cause greatly.

“We finally won our first national event, an AHRA Grand American in Tulsa [Okla.] in 1979, and that was a stepping-stone to our Indy win. We’d done fairly well in Indy every year, and we just kept getting better. Winning Indy was a big deal for us.”

Despite the points and a half awarded to the Indy champ, they didn’t crack the top 10 in 1980 but accomplished the feat the following year, finishing seventh on the strength of runner-ups in Atlanta and Baton Rouge, La. Despite the success, the team was having problems getting the financial ends to meet, and after opening the 1982 season in Pomona with slim sponsorship prospects, they reluctantly parked the car.

Fedderly joined the Minor team in mid-1982, just as its big blue machine was about to go on a performance bender. Coincidence? I think not.

Fedderly didn’t stay idle long, though. Longtime friend Beck, a Seattle native who had raced extensively in Canada for north-of-the-border owners in the 1970s before joining Minor’s team in 1980, came calling. Despite two near-championship seasons in 1980 and 1981 and a penchant for strong performances, the Minor team was in a performance funk early in 1982, and Beck pushed Minor to hire Fedderly.

“They’d run good the previous fall [when Beck set the all-time e.t. mark at 5.57 at the 1981 World Finals], but they lost the combination and were struggling a bit,” recalled Fedderly, who joined the team in June. “They had a variety of people who had been tuning the car, so I didn’t take anyone’s job. I had quite a bit of experience with the centrifugal clutch from Terry’s car; the Minor car had a pedal clutch, and it had kind of run its course. I was able to bring that knowledge to the program, then got heavily involved in the tune-up.

“I had an automotive machine shop, and my partner was available to take it over, so it seemed like a good opportunity. I thought I was only going to be there for a short time, but it turned into 10 years.”

A runner-up in Brainerd in August showed they were on the right path, and Beck’s crushing barrier-breaking 5.48 in the first round in Indy put everyone on notice. They finished the season with back-to-back runner-ups in California at Fremont and Orange County, leading to a memorable 1983 season in which they won four times (five if you count Minor’s stunning and unintentional final-round win over Beck at the Cajun Nationals) and made 17 of the season’s 18 quickest runs, topped by the matching 5.391-second passes at Fremont and Orange County. For their efforts in 1983, Fedderly, Beck, and Minor were named Car Craft Magazine Person(s) of the Year.

“We had a lot of fun that year,” he said. “We just kind of stumbled onto a happy combination; that’s just the way it is sometimes. It was very user-friendly and made lots of power and worked well with Gary’s driving style, and we had a good blower that was steady and didn’t need a lot of maintenance.

“Everyone wondered what we had going. I remember one time Tim Richards [crew chief then for Joe Amato] standing on the starting line while Gary was staging the car, and he was almost in the car with him.

The Minor machine made 17 of 1983's 18 quickest passes, but none was more stunning than the 5.391 pass laid on Gary Ormsby in the final round of the Golden Gate Nationals, a feat duplicated at the next race, the World Finals, where Beck earned his third season championship.

“It was a combination of a lot of things, from the tune-up to the heads to the chassis and the clutch; no one part that anyone could have copied would have made a difference for them, but when people are asking you questions, you never know which piece of the puzzle they’re missing. You have to be careful.”

The missing piece in the 5.391 puzzle turned out to be a new larger-volume fuel pump from Sid Waterman that they got in Fremont. “We had run pretty well before that, but we had been eagerly waiting for Sid’s new pump. It wasn’t much more than another five gallons per minute of flow, but it was the difference.”

The 1984 season was another success, with three wins and another second-place finish – Beck’s third in the past five seasons– this time behind Amato and Richards and their paradigm-shifting, high-wing entry, a design that the Minor team initially eschewed.

“Eldon Rasmussen was pushing us to run the big wing for some time, but we resisted it,” said Fedderly. “We thought it would be too much drag, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.”

Falling a little behind the aero tech curve was further exacerbated by the team’s rapid expansion, which included a lot more races for Minor’s own car and the addition of a Funny Car, driven by Ed McCulloch. They also were understaffed.

“We really diluted our program by having more cars; we were spread thin,” he said. “For three cars, we only had a few of us who were full-time team members: Me, Gary, Ed, and Willie Wolter were about it. Larry liked to bring his friends to the races to help us, but it wasn’t like they were there to help with the maintenance between events. We could have used some more help.”

Beck won just once more – at the 1985 Finals – before he left the team after the 1986 campaign. Fedderly moved to the Funny Car operation, where through 1991 he won 12 times with McCulloch while the dragsters – with Minor and drivers that included Shirley Muldowney, Frank Hawley, and Cruz Pedregon – struggled to win in the shadow of the reemergence of Don Garlits, hot new challenger Darrell Gwynn, and cagey veterans Dick LaHaie (who was actually part of Team Minor for a period) and Eddie Hill.

"It was kind of disappointing,” Fedderly said of the dragsters’ dry spell, “but you always think that the next race you get to you’ll get it straightened out; that’s the eternal hope that drag racers are known for. You’re always one turn of the screw from salvation. Looking back, it was something special and some really happy times.”

As crew chief for Minor's Otter Pops- and Miller-sponsored Funny Cars driven by all-star Ed McCulloch, right, Fedderly and "the Ace" won 12 times, broke performance barriers, and finished second in points behind John Force in 1990.

As the crew chief on McCulloch’s Miller Funny Car, they were the first to break the 5.40-, 5.30-, and 5.20-second barriers and finished as high as second in the standings, in 1990 behind Force, who won the title for the first time that year. It was also McCulloch and Fedderly in the other lane in Montreal in 1987 when Force finally won his first final round after nine runner-ups, with the Miller mount succumbing to a broken blower snout.

The good times came to an end in early 1992, when Fedderly was tuning on the McDonald’s Funny Car, then driven by Pedregon. Although the car would go on to win the championship and break Force’s two-year reign at the top, mechanical woes led to a lot of friction between Fedderly and Minor.

“We blew the body off the car on the starting line three times at the hit of the throttle,” he remembered painfully. “Larry and I had a difference of opinion about what was causing it, and it led to leaving the team after the Gatornationals, but I have nothing bad to say about Minor’s program; it was a good stepping-stone for me.

“I don’t think I’d even gotten home, and Force was on the phone. I wasn’t sure about the fit over there, but Force asked me to come to one race with them to see. It was Atlanta, and we won that race, and I could see that there was room for me in the program.”

The "brain trust" of Austin Coil, left, and Fedderly led to a decade of unparalleled Funny Car dominance by John Force.

Fedderly got along fabulously with crew chief Coil, and they formed a dynamic alliance that Force coined his “brain trust.” Force won his third season championship that year, making Fedderly just the second crew chief (behind Leonard Hughes) to have won NHRA championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Since then, Dale Armstrong and Rahn Tobler also have accomplished the feat.

“Coil and I got along real well. We really hit it off. What a clever guy,” marveled Fedderly. "One time he told me, ‘The reason we’re such a great team is that I know all of the important stuff, and you know all the rest.’ That was typical Coil.

“He was the senior guy, but other than that, I felt we were equals. We worked really well together and played off of each other’s strengths. He was a brilliant guy, technically, but his mannerisms didn’t always promote harmony on the team; that was my role. I handled a lot of the other personnel stuff and got to where we had a pretty stable race team.”

Keeping upwards of 30 guys happy is a major chore for a guy who started fuel racing when a big team was three guys, including the driver.

“I did whatever needed doing,” he said simply.

Fedderly, Coil, Mike Neff, and Force celebrated Force's 15th season championship in 2010. Fedderly was instrumental in 13 of those titles.

From 1992 through 2012, Fedderly and Coil tuned Force to 109 national event wins and 13 season championships and won NHRA’s Funny Car bonus race five times, the Winston Invitational four times, and the inaugural Funny Car vs. Top Fuel Winston Showdown in 1999.

There were plenty of downs to go with the ups, and Fedderly was part of it all, from the loss of rising star Eric Medlen -- whom Fedderly initially had hired as a mechanic -- to Force’s near-career-ending accident in 2007. He was also there for the beginning of the next generation, hiring Robert Hight -- who would go on to be a championship-winning driver for the team -- as a mechanic in 1994 (“He initially turned us down, but I called him back, and he accepted; it’s a good thing because he’s been such a great asset to the program”) and, of course, being part of the growth and ascension of Force’s daughters Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney.

"It was never boring, that's for sure," he reflected. "Force sometimes had a hundred ideas an hour, and it was up to us to make them happen, and sometimes that was pretty challenging, but we got through it. Some of the safety things that came from those times are important advances. Losing Eric and John's accidents definitely were the down times; we went through some pretty low periods.

“Working for John Force was a really special and interesting time,” he said, probably understating the obvious. “We didn’t lack for anything. Force reinvested in the program, anything we needed, and it shows in the results. Force was never afraid to step up, and he wasn't afraid to try and gave all of us quite an education. He knew how to create chemistry and put the right people together.”

Even after he retired, the plaudits for Fedderly kept coming. Already a member of the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame earlier this year.

What comes next? He’s enjoying the downtime, less-stressful trips to the drags, including hanging out with former partner Capp, who has been involved in nostalgia racing (don’t expect a rebirth, though), and just having time to himself and his wife.

“It’s kind of nice not to have to set the alarm clock each morning,” he said, “and I’m not bored yet, so I’m just enjoying everything, or I will once we finish this move.”